WASHINGTON - Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, are debating Thursday night in their last face-to-face confrontation before the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
The two candidates, both in their 70s, repeatedly interrupted each other, Trump more so than Biden, at their 90-plus-minute debate in late September, a standoff that some U.S. political pundits described as the worst-ever U.S. presidential debate.
But this time, the independent Commission on Presidential Debates is muting each candidate's microphone while the other speaks for two minutes in response to questions on six current affairs issues selected by moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News.
If neither Trump nor Biden attempts to talk over the other during the two-minute opening comments, the commission said it thinks American voters - at least the relatively few who claim they are still undecided on how they will vote -- might get a clearer view of where each might take the country when one of them is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
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After that, both candidates' microphones will be turned back on and the free-for-all that ensued last time could be repeated. That's when Trump and Biden hurled a string of taunts, insults and barbed comments at each other, with the interruptions making it difficult at times for viewers to follow the exchanges.
Much has changed between the first debate and Thursday's event, which unfolds on a university debate stage in Nashville, Tennessee. A second planned debate scheduled for last week was called off after Trump contracted the coronavirus and was hospitalized for three nights.
That led the commission to unilaterally say the two candidates would debate virtually, but Trump refused and the encounter was called off.
More importantly, millions of Americans have already made up their minds about the election, with more than 43 million people already having cast early ballots by mail or in person. Many have said that during the unchecked coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. they wanted to avoid coming face to face with other voters in the expected long lines at polling stations on Election Day.
Many Democratic voters favoring Biden said they wanted to be among the first to vote to oust Trump, to make him the third U.S. president in the last four decades to lose a bid for re-election after a single term. Republican voters have often told pollsters and news reporters they intend to vote on Election Day in person, as has been the norm for decades in U.S. national elections.
Thursday's debate could be the last, best chance for Trump, a real estate entrepreneur and reality television show host-turned-politician, to cut into Biden's persistent lead in national and statewide polls. Biden, with nearly a half century on the American political scene as a U.S. senator and second in command to former President Barack Obama, holds a 9- or 10-percentage point lead over Trump in national polls, but a lead of about half that in battleground states that will likely decide the overall outcome.
NBC's Welker says she will ask the candidates about their efforts to control the coronavirus that has killed a world-leading 221,000 people in the U.S. Other topics will include American families, U.S. racial issues, climate change, national security and leadership.
In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday, Trump assailed Welker as "totally partisan" and attacked the debate commission as biased against him.
The president said he is not happy about the decision to mute microphones of either of the candidates during the opening two-minute statements and claimed that the debate should have focused on foreign policy instead of the coronavirus pandemic and other domestic policy issues.
Trump has continued to campaign at large rallies of supporters this week, relishing the energy he believes they add to his campaign and believing they are essential to winning a second term. Biden, meanwhile, has stayed out of public view since last weekend, remaining at his home in the eastern state of Delaware to prepare for the debate.
The Trump campaign has promised to confront Biden with one issue absent from the first debate - allegations that Biden's son Hunter used his father's connections while he was vice president to make lucrative business deals in Ukraine and China.
Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager, said in a statement this week, "If the media won't ask Joe Biden these questions, the president will, and there will be no escape for Biden."
Biden has called the questions about his son "a smear campaign," but has not publicly addressed the specific allegations about Hunter Biden's deal making, including his holding a seat on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company for which, according to U.S. news accounts, he was paid $50,000 or more a month.
How Biden might answer questions about his son's financial transactions is unknown, as is whether Biden will raise questions about the vast sums that corporations and foreign governments have spent on hotel stays and golf outings at Trump-owned properties during his presidency.
Aaron Kall, the debate coach at the University of Michigan, said the stakes in the debate "are once again much higher for President Trump."
Kall said Trump "has little margin for error" because partisan divisions and early voting have left fewer undecided voters than in some recent U.S. presidential elections - perhaps less than 5% of the electorate, according to national polls.
"Trump will have lower expectations heading into this debate given his previous poor performance" at the September event, Kall said. "If he can put together a solid performance, that could erase coronavirus from the media headlines for at least a brief period of time."
As for Biden, Kall said, "Given his consistent lead in the polls, Biden doesn't need to deliver a knockout performance or anything resembling that. His campaign likes where the race currently sits and would be happy with an indefinite extension of the status quo political environment.
"Just like during the last debate, he needs to be on guard against making a major gaffe that could reset the narrative of the race at a perilous time."